Why Bother With Logging?


Just before I hurt my foot, I was at the dropzone sitting across the lunch table from a friend who was filling in his logbook, complete with little stickman icons showing the jumps we’d done for the day. I couldn’t resist. “Dude, seriously?” He looked startled, not realizing that my comment was really a defensive measure construed entirely to hide my own inadequacies in logging anything.

This has become such a phobia with me that I think it’s actually causing acid reflux. On Friday, I got one of those emails from the FAA Safety Team announcing a seminar on logging and how important it is. Geez, I really ought to be doing this, I thought, but geez, I’m really not going to. The root of my aversion to logging has less to do with the principle of the act itself than it does filling in forms. I loathe filling in forms with an intense, white-hot hatred I can only describe as pathological.

The reasons for this are several. I have sloppy handwriting that’s only getting worse and I just make a mess of the little blocks and lines most forms have. Forms tend to require bits of information that the purveyor of the form obviously has no need or right to know. Increasingly, this data is used to morph the form-filler-outer into an email target and likely sales prospect. And forms always require some item of information that I don’t have, can’t remember, never knew or will have to look up on another form that I can’t find, never had or is out of date, requiring filling out another form to refresh.

Look, I realize this is all quite irrational and the aviation world is more or less populated by people who just don’t have my bizarre little neurosis. And bully for them. I just happen to be a guy who knows and confronts his own character weaknesses. And also an aviation journalist who can rarely mine a logbook for those colorful stories that can be spun into entertaining columns. And what entries I do have tend to have the eloquence and detail of a ninth-grade dropout with a room-temperature IQ. One entry I found for the winter of 1993 has the word “ice” in the comment field. That’s it. I can’t be sure, but that might be the flight where I nearly soiled my shorts descending into an ice-laden stratus layer inbound to Poughkeepsie. It either failed to make an impression or terrified me to the point of wordlessness.

And why log anyway? Well, it is required, some of it, at least. FAR 61.51 spells it out and essentially says you have to log training used to meet requirements for a rating and for required recency of flight experience. Not wishing to be a scofflaw, thanks, I do all that. So I’ve dutifully logged the required flight time for ratings, the flight review and just in case I want to carry passengers in the Cub, I log three full stops every 90 days. And of course, instruction given. At one time, I logged in great detail but thinking back on it, I think I stopped that after I got an ATP, figuring I was done with ratings. (Plus the aforementioned form psychosis.)

If you accept that some kind of agreed-upon framework is necessary to license pilots, logging makes sense and I suspect it started with the Wright’s technical notes rather eloquently written with fountain pens in a sand-blown shed at Kill Devil Hills. But as regulation accreted upon regulation, logging has drifted into ludicrousness and become an exercise unto itself, not a minor addendum to the actual act of flying an airplane.

The example that set this off for me was an article in one of our sister publications that turned out to be a long, hand-wringing screed analyzing the legality of logging instrument approaches for 61.57 currency. The advice was you could log an approach if you were in actual IMC to the final approach fix, but not if you broke out before that. I suppose there are people who would obsess over what “break out” means exactly, but you can guess I’m not one of them. The framework of what constitutes legal IFR currency, revised in 2011, is itself an anachronism, requiring as it does practice in holds you’ll never get and intercepting navigation signals you don’t use much anymore. (OK, so it says electronic systems.) It’s understandable that whatever logic is buried in this rule—and that’s pitifully little—would cause some pilots to consider themselves out of currency for having sighted the ground 100 feet before FAF passage on their sixth approach. This is just another example of FAA staffers sitting around a table devising a rule to satisfy people who need rigid oversight and who aren’t comfortable with, shall we say, fluidity.

Obviously, currency isn’t the same as proficiency and legality isn’t necessarily in the same universe as either. Currency isn’t really between you and your logbook, it’s what’s between the headset earcups. Either you’re realistically confident in your competency to fly an airplane or you aren’t, irrespective of what’s in the logbook. I’ll admit to a gray area here, which I think any honest person would recognize. We’ve all launched on flights where there might have been nagging doubts that somehow evaporated after landing, proving that hey, you could actually do it after all. Congratulations: survived another one. Maybe we need to update IMSAFE to reflect 21st century concerns. Am I really up for this or is that just the Xanax talking?

I will admit to another quirk, too. I am fairly obsessive about the airplane logbooks. That logging matters and besides, I’m paying someone else to fill in the little blanks. What a marvel when it’s done with neat handwriting or one of those nifty printed stickers. Still, I’ve noted that spelling skills aren’t that common among IAs.

These days, for the good or the bad but probably the good, you can’t always even escape logging. Like bugs ensnared in spider webs, a matrix of unseen technology records our every move, whether we like it or not. In skydiving, we have fancy audible altimeters that work like an ear-mounted FDR, noting the date and altitude of jumps and even the average speed. Some tablet apps do flight logging automatically, which even I will admit is impressive. Increasingly, I’m hearing of pilots making video recordings of their flights, adding a visual dimension that mere scrawlings in a logbook can’t convey. That’s kinda neat if you’re willing to bother with it. For years now, GPS chips have been recovered from crashes to inform the investigation.

So, whatever you do, don’t be like me. Don’t just fly the airplane, stuff it back into the hangar and more or less forget about it until the next time. That’s a failure of imagination and your penmanship will erode to the point of uselessness.